In September 1995, a Belarusian attack helicopter shot down a gas balloon that had unintentionally entered Belarusian airspace during a race. The "advantage," from Lukashenka's specific point of view, was that both balloonists who were killed in the incident were citizens of the United States, a country he vehemently dislikes. Official Belarus has neither apologized nor offered compensation for the deaths, and in the EU and North America no one took any real interest in this incident.
Lukashenka's regime quickly became increasingly authoritarian. In 1996, he pushed through amendments to the 1994 democratic constitution that gave him far more power. He unceremoniously dissolved the old unicameral parliament, the Supreme Soviet, which he considered to be unreliable, and replaced it with a bicameral parliament. With very few exceptions, only his supporters have held seats in that parliament since the end of 1996. In 1999, several opposition politicians, including former Interior Minister Yury Zakharanka and former Deputy Prime Minister Viktar Hanchar, died under "unexplained" circumstances. There are numerous indications that Lukashenka ordered or at least approved their assassination.And in the second half of the 1990s—during the reign of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who was increasingly weak, both politically and in terms of his health—Lukashenka dreamed of becoming head of a new "union state" by uniting his country with Russia. However, this dream came to an end in 1999–2000, at the latest, with Vladimir Putin's rise to power in the Kremlin. And Belarus is the only country in Europe that still has the death penalty (it is for this reason that the country is not a member of the Council of Europe).
All these developments went largely unnoticed in the EU and North America: Belarus remained a kind of terra incognita in which, with the exception of very few political scientists and historians, no one was interested—just as, incidentally, no one cared about Lukashenka's anti-Semitic remarks that occasionally surfaced or his "praise" for Hitler in an interview for the German business newspaper Handelsblatt in 1995.
Since August 2020, however, Belarus has attracted considerably more attention: that was when Lukashenka claimed victory in an election opponents say was faked to extend his rule. He reacted to peaceful street protests with a tough, persistent crackdown: opposition media (e.g., the popular media and internet portal Tut.by) were banned, shut down, etc., and thousands were arrested and imprisoned. Opposition activist Vitold Ashurak, who had protested against the rigging of the presidential elections, was sentenced to five years' imprisonment; on March 21, 2021, according to Lukashenka's authorities, he suffered a cardiac arrest in Correctional Colony No. 17. The exact circumstances of his death were initially unknown. Ashurok had not previously suffered from any health problems. In any case, the Russian-language Wikipedia page about him carried slander for some time (and at least as of 0:30 CET on May 26, 2021): he had been a "traitor to the Republic of Belarus" and had been "sentenced to five years' imprisonment in a colony for organizing an attempted coup d'état supported by the West (Poland, Lithuania)."
Ashurak was the seventh opposition figure to die since August 2020. The eighth victim was 17-year-old Dzmitry Stakhoyski, who committed suicide on May 25, 2021 after being accused by Lukashenka's authorities of participating in mass unrest in August 2020.
The Message of the Hijack
With the forced rerouting of the Ryanair plane, Lukashenka and Putin wanted to send very clear messages to their respective oppositions: We will get you wherever you are—in Russia (of which Aleksei Navalny is by far the best-known example) or in Belarus (where imprisoned opposition activist Mariia Kalesnikava is especially well-known abroad); in exile (as in the case of the former Russian secret service officer Alexander Litvinenko, who died of polonium poisoning in 2006 in the United Kingdom, where he had defected to); and even in an aircraft transiting our airspace. This is to increase uncertainty among the opposition, to intimidate it and, if possible, to deter it from any activity at all. And the message being sent to the West is: you can get upset, make statements about your concern, condemn our actions, demand investigations, etc., and you can levy some sanctions (mostly symbolic anyway), but none of it will have the desired effect—we will not be swayed from our course, because you are eternally divided and unwilling to take those measures that would really affect us.
Addressing his rubber-stamp Parliament on May 26, Lukashenka—who called Pratasevich a "terrorist" without mentioning his name—defended the decision to divert the Ryanair flight, citing a bomb threat, and said that the West was trying to interfere in the country's affairs. "We need to take appropriate measures to protect our country," he said, adding that he "had acted within the law." According to Lukashenka, the jet fighter had been dispatched because Belarus’s one nuclear power plant was in the vicinity of the Ryanair plane's flightpath—"and isn't one Chernobyl enough?" This total nonsense, however, calls to mind the notorious motto "Impudence wins."
What Has to Be Done?
It is inevitably difficult to punish a brutal and corrupt ruling clique without also harming the population one wants to help to achieve its freedom. This problem arises because practically all dictators who are threatened with sanctions by the international community take their own country hostage. And that, unsurprisingly, is what Lukashenka is doing.
The EU sanctions that were already declared and announced on May 24, such as the closure of EU airspace to aircraft from Belarus, are certainly a step in the right direction (which Moscow immediately denounced, as was to be expected). Still, aircraft of the Belarusian airline Belavia continued to land the next day, at least in Berlin and Stockholm. In any case, a flight ban must only be the beginning. Valery Kavaleuski, opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaia’s Representative on Foreign Affairs, said: "Tough economic sanctions must be imposed, foreign investments in Belarus must be stopped, including aid to Belarusian banks. And a dozen people from Lukashenko's inner circle, who can support him financially, must be put on a sanctions list." Another possibility would be to disconnect Belarus from the SWIFT system and thereby make its international payment transactions more difficult. In addition, the construction of the Nord Stream II natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany should be halted, as Timothy Snyder suggested immediately after the hijacking of the Ryanair plane. The expansion of English-language Kremlin-run propaganda media abroad (and especially in Germany, which the leadership in Moscow has traditionally regarded as a key country in Western Europe) must also be stopped.
And this time it is essential to ensure that the sanctions are actually enforced: too often they have been circumvented or simply ignored. This is the case, for example, with regard to the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, occupied by Russia since 2014, where the German company Siemens has shipped gas turbines and the Danish company Grundfos imported pumps (equipped with Siemens engines) for the water supply. As the German business ethicist, Ulf Posé said about Lukashenka: "You don't do business with criminals."
Hopes in some Western circles that it might be possible to pressure Russia to play a constructive role in Belarus are naïve: that Moscow might play a "constructive role" is regularly hoped for, demanded or predicted in the West in all crises without exception, be it Syria, the separatist conflicts in Georgia, Iran's nuclear program, etc., but this has never materialized. Finally, it is questionable whether, from U.S. president Joe Biden's point of view, it was really the best decision to announce immediately after Pratasevich's abduction that he and Putin would be meeting on June 16, 2021.
What Happens if Lukashenka Gets Away with This?
Many things have happened in the last few years: Putin annexed Crimea and shortly afterwards unleashed a war against Ukraine in its eastern region of the Donbas (2014); the Russian military shot down a Malaysia Air civilian airliner on Ukrainian territory, killing 298 people (2014); agents of the Russian military intelligence agency (GRU) carried out an attack on an ammunition depot in the Czech Republic (2014); several Russian-born opposition figures were assassinated abroad (including in the UK, Germany and Austria); hacking attacks on parliaments, ministries (including especially security-related ones), key businesses and infrastructure in the EU and North America have long been practically part of everyday life; etc. Why are Russia and now Belarus allowing themselves such actions that are more than brazen? Because they know (or at least they think they do) that they can expect no reaction, or at most an insignificant one, from the states affected. But as Anne Applebaum has warned, "Other regimes will hijack planes too. If Belarus gets away with it, authoritarian regimes around the world will have a new tool of oppression." Basically, it is a law of nature of sorts when dealing with dictators and authoritarian regimes: if one gives in to them, they become more and more bold. Faith healing, appeasing, sidestepping, and putting a good face on the matter, which is what Western politicians like to do, only calms the situation in the short term (if at all); in the longer run, this approach often leads to greater conflicts and even wars. Whether one likes it or not, the facts remain: The EU faces a systemic conflict with the dictatorships in Belarus and Russia. And Lukashenka and his protector Putin only respect resolve and strength.
Martin Malek is an independent Austrian political scientist and contributor to the IWM’s Chronicle from Belarus
The article gives the views of the author, not the position of the "Ukraine in European Dialogue" program or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).
See, for example: Christian F. Trippe and Ekaterina Sotnik, Belarus: How death squads targeted opposition politicians. Deutsche Welle, December 16, 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/belarus-how-death-squads-targeted-opposition-politicians/a-51685204 (May 26, 2021).
Martin Malek, Belarus: „Verspätete Nation“ und Autoritarismus. Landesverteidigungsakademie, 2008, https://www.bundesheer.at/pdf_pool/publikationen/1_belarus_verspaetete_nation_malek_25.pdf (May 26, 2021), pp. 20-27.
Ашурок, Витольд Михайлович. https://ru.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=%D0%90%D1%88%D1%83%D1%80%D0%BE%D0%BA,_%D0%92%D0%B8%D1%82%D0%BE%D0%BB%D1%8C%D0%B4_%D0%9C%D0%B8%D1%85%D0%B0%D0%B9%D0%BB%D0%BE%D0%B2%D0%B8%D1%87&stable=1 (May 26, 2021).
The 26-year-old Pratasevich was already since November 2020 on Lukashenka's "national list of terrorists"; see: "В самолете находился террорист". Как Лукашенко объяснил перехват Ryanair. BBC Russian Service, May 26, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/russian/news-57238370 (May 26, 2021).
Quoted from: Лукашенко прокомментировал инцидент с самолетом Афины-Вильнюс и раскрыл новые подробности. Belta, May 26, 2021, https://www.belta.by/president/view/lukashenko-prokommentiroval-intsident-s-samoletom-afiny-vilnjus-i-raskryl-novye-podrobnosti-443021-2021/ (May 26, 2021).
Claus Hecking, Deshalb ist Belarus noch nicht vom Luftverkehr abgeschnitten. Der Spiegel, May 25, 2021, https://www.spiegel.de/wirtschaft/belarus-warum-die-staats-airline-belavia-noch-immer-europa-anfliegt-a-a7d87e6a-31c3-41b0-a47c-d4ff0d08af2c (May 26, 2021).
Quoted from: Philip Fabian and Julian Röpcke, HIER knipst Protasewitsch die Tod-Feindin des Belarus-Diktators. Bild, May 25, 2021, https://www.bild.de/politik/ausland/politik-ausland/protasewitsch-in-athen-foto-zeigt-entfuehrten-blogger-mit-exil-praesidentin-76512642.bild.html (May 26, 2021)
"Mit Verbrechern macht man keine Geschäfte" [interview]. NTV, May 25, 2021, https://www.n-tv.de/mediathek/videos/wirtschaft/Mit-Verbrechern-macht-man-keine-Geschaefte-article22575067.html (May 25, 2021).
Anne Applebaum, Other Regimes Will Hijack Planes Too. The Atlantic, May 24, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/05/belarus-lukashenko-hijack-plane-precedent-dictators/618971/ (May 26, 2021).